A Trump administration push for the deportation of Vietnam War-era refugees incited strong opposition Thursday from St. Paul's Southeast Asian community, with elected officials and families saying they will do whatever they can to fight it.
Calling it a betrayal of wartime promises, state Rep.-elect Kaohly Her condemned the deportations measure while recalling the bravery of her grandfather, who fought alongside U.S. soldiers before resettling his family in the United States.
"This is not the dream that he fought for," Her, a first time legislator who will take office next month, said at a news conference in St. Paul.
It's not clear when the deportations could begin — a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did not immediately respond Thursday when asked — but advocates and community members say they've known since a roundup of dozens of Vietnamese-Americans last year that the U.S. government has taken a new posture on their longtime status.
Some 8,705 Vietnamese with deportation orders live in the United States, according to an ICE spokesman. They're generally green-card holders who were convicted of a crime, although 858 of them do not have a criminal record, he said.
It's not known exactly how many are in Minnesota, but state Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, said his office estimates nearly 800 Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese Americans under deportation orders live in the state.
Vietnamese immigrants have believed that a 2008 agreement between the U.S. and Hanoi protected members of their community from deportation if they arrived in the U.S. before 1995, when the two countries normalized relations. That shifted last year when Vietnamese-Americans began seeing family members detained.
The Vietnamese government ultimately refused to accept most of the detainees, and the deportations push slowed down. A meeting this month between U.S. and Vietnamese officials has been viewed as a restart to the deportations, however, sparking fresh anxieties.
Crimes from decades ago
The news has shaken Minnesota's sizable Southeast Asian community, which is home to some 115,000 Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese. Many of those marked for deportation qualify because of crimes committed decades ago and have since served their time in prison and gone on to start families and build careers, advocates say.
"We believe it is wrong to sentence our family members with life sentences [of] deportation," said Jenny Srey, who organized Thursday's news conference. Her husband was detained in 2016 and targeted for deportation to Cambodia, but supporters successfully fought the effort when a federal immigration judge found that his deportation would cause extreme hardship on his family.
The number of Cambodians deported from the U.S. this year has been the largest ever, with another 36 people flown to Phnom Penh, the capital, this week. A handful of people from California and Washington state who were supposed to be on that flight won last-minute pardons — and freedom from deportation — from their governors.
Still, there's a strong sense of 'who's next?' within the Twin Cities Southeast Asian community, said Jennifer Nguyen Moore, who attended Thursday's news conference in a show of support.
"It's not just in my Vietnamese community," she said.
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, in a private meeting before Thursday's news conference, talked with people whose lives have been upended by deportations or the threat of one.
"These are people who are terrified, people who have lived their entire life in this country, people who don't know any country other than the United States," he said.